Books: The Pale Horseman

This was actually last month’s audiobook, but, as sometimes happens, the CD player in my car refused to play the last CD of the set. Our library places a thin strip, which I assume contains a security tag, on the first and last CD of each set, which has to be deactivated when I check out so it doesn’t set off the alarm when I go out the door. Usually it’s not a problem, but occasionally it apparently messes with a sensor in the CD player, perhaps because it sticks up a little too much.

The CD drive in my computer is less fussy, so I can listen to it in our computer room – when my husband isn’t already listening to Rush Limbaugh or watching a TV show or movie via the internet. Yesterday the library sent me a courtesy reminder that the audiobook would be due in a few days (I had already renewed it once), so I finally finished it. As you may guess, the book was interesting but not a page turner – or whatever the digital equivalent of that is.

The subject matter was not of all that great interest to me, but I had read that Bernard Cornwell is a superb writer of historical fiction. I have a series he wrote based on the Arthurian legends, but shortly after starting the first one I had a baby and never got around to finishing it. My older son read the series last year and seemed to enjoy it, so I’ll have to get around to it sometime. I’m less interested in the period this book deals with, during the time of Alfred the Great, but I decided it was worth a try.

Perhaps it is a sign of Cornwell’s skill as a writer that it kept my interest as well as it did (until the CD problem). The main character is a young warrior, arrogant and impetuous, bored with life at home with his wife and son and eager for the excitement and rewards of battle. When his king is at peace, Uhtred goes out and makes his own battles by disguising himself and his ship as Danish and raiding along the coast. He is a pagan and proud of it, and has only scorn for King Alfred’s Christian piety.

What is there for me to like in such a character? Yet Cornwell does manage to make him somewhat likeable, in part because Uhtred is narrating the story as an old man remembering his youth. Most of the time his account is told with such immediacy that I forgot that fact, but it means that Uhtred can recognize in himself that arrogance and foolishness of his youth.

Uhtred also has an unusual cross-cultural understanding, having been raised by Danes although by birth he is a Saxon. He can easily pass for a Dane, and uses that to his advantage, both when raiding and later when spying for King Alfred. He understands their way of life and their battle tactics, which should make him a valuable asset to King Alfred, but his lack of respect for the Christian God – or for just about anyone except the Danish family that raised him – keeps him out of the king’s favor much of the time.

He also finds his allegiance divided. He would love to go back to the Danes, to live and fight and go raiding with them. But the man who raised him has died, and the man’s son is being held as a hostage to keep the uneasy peace between Danes and Saxons. (It is the Danes who break it, apparently not having very high regard for the lives of the hostages they have provided to Alfred.) Any other Danes would consider him just another Saxon enemy.

So Uhtred swears loyalty to Alfred, realizing that here at least he is fighting for people whose blood and heritage he shares, and where what he can do with his sword is more important than who he knows. In the end it is primarily due to Uhtred’s efforts that the Saxons prevail (against a vastly superior Danish army), and Alfred still has a kingdom to reign over.

The book ends very abruptly at the end of the final battle – even my husband, hearing the tail end of the story, remarked on it. I realized, when I read reviews on amazon.com, that this is the second book of a series, and its ending is simply prelude to the next volume. As I have plenty of other books to read, I probably won’t be looking for either that one, or the first book in the series, about Uhtred’s childhood. For those who love the brutal detail of battles, Cornwell’s books are apparently unexcelled. But as my interest in historical fiction is more how people lived than how they died, I’ll look elsewhere for a window to the past.

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